Is your town hiring? Suburbs add jobs after long decline

After years of decline following the Great Recession, local government staffing is starting to rise again.

According to a Daily Herald analysis of 61 suburbs, 31 of them added the equivalent of 139 full-time jobs during the fiscal year that ended April 30, 2015, for most suburbs and Dec. 31, 2014, for others.

But 16 suburbs eliminated the equivalent of 46 full-time jobs and 14 towns held the line on the head count from the previous year, the analysis of the suburbs' most recent audits show.

Elgin added the equivalent of 21 new full-time jobs, leading the 61 suburbs in the analysis. Most of the additional positions stem from creation of a 311 information center, Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall said.

Carpentersville added 19 full-time equivalent jobs, followed by Addison with 15 and Elk Grove Village with 10. Gurnee and Oak Brook each added seven jobs in the last fiscal year reported.

Adding or reducing staff

Still, the vast majority of towns are operating with much smaller staffs than just a few years ago. At its peak seven years ago, employment by the 61 towns was nearly 10 percent higher with the equivalent of 13,251 full-time jobs, compared to a low point of 11,977 full-time equivalent positions two years ago, according to the analysis.

“In some places, you'll see that we're adding to get to a place where we were historically,” Stegall said of Elgin's new positions. “But we've made great use of part-time staff and expanded a lot in the way of contracting work.”

Most of the 16 employees at Elgin's new 311 center moved from other city departments and their old jobs were filled by part-time employees, Stegall said.

The 311 center handles nuisance or information calls, such as abandoned car reports, freeing up higher-paid police officers, Stegall said.

While Elgin increased staffing by nearly 3 percent from 2013 to 2014, personnel expenditures rose just 2.3 percent, city financial documents show.

Other suburbs also hired part-time workers, which Stegall said saves taxpayers money because they usually don't receive health benefits or access to a pension program. For counting, two employees working half time make up one full-time equivalent, which generally amounts to 2,080 hours of work during the year.

Many of the new Carpentersville positions were filled with part-time firefighters and public works employees who receive health care benefits, but not pensions. That took some negotiating with the unions, said Carpentersville Village Manager Mark Rooney.

“There were a lot of steps to go through to get this established,” he said. “But the confidence our full-time firefighters have with the part-timers has grown immensely.”

Carpentersville's costs for employee salary and benefits rose more than 5 percent from fiscal year 2014 to 2015, according to the village's budget documents. Rooney contends much of that was anticipated due to contract increases for many village employees.

Staffing in local government declined following the Great Recession, but never as precipitously as in the private sector, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to the analysis of the audits, the 61 towns in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties first saw significant job reductions in 2010, when they reduced their workforces by 3.8 percent.

Meanwhile, private sector jobs in those counties began declining as early as 2008 and peaked with a combined job loss of 6.1 percent in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The private sector also was quicker to begin adding jobs. Private sector employers in the six suburban counties were adding staff by 2011 while most local governments continued to reduce positions until 2014, according to the analysis.

Chicago-based staffing and recruiting firm the LaSalle Network reported survey results showing a large majority of companies intend to add staff this year, LaSalle CEO Tom Gimbel said, with information technology workers in demand.

Some in local government are far more tentative.

St. Charles cut its full-time equivalent positions by 12 in fiscal year 2015 - the most of any suburb in the analysis - and city officials say they expect to hold the line on staffing in the foreseeable future. Despite that decrease, the city saved less than 1 percent in salary and benefit costs from 2014 to 2015, according to its audits.

“We're going to stay in that general realm of where we're at,” said Chris Minick, St. Charles' finance director. With 267 full-time jobs, the city is a far cry from its staffing peak of 349 full-time equivalent positions in 2007.

“I doubt we will ever see that again,” Minick said. “I would be surprised if we ever got to 300 again. I think we've gotten a little bit better in terms of technology and employing it to reduce manpower costs. I just think there's definitely a concern or focus on making sure municipal government provides services efficiently and effectively.”

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